Learning How To Be Busy

Written by Andie Rea

The story

When I hear some cliché, oversimplified, idealistic motivational quote like “discover your purpose, live your passion,” I get a bit annoyed. However, I love a real-life story about persistence and determination. I suppose it’s the good ol’ American inside of me, but its always inspiring to hear about someone who worked hard and achieved his or her goal.

One such story was told at the Catalyst Conference I attended in Atlanta, Georgia with the GCSA cabinet and Agape staff in fall 2011. The speaker was Jim Collins, a professor at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and best-selling business book author. The story he shared was a part of his book Great by Choice: Uncertainty, Chaos and Luck — Why Some Thrive Despite Them All.

The story he told goes like this:

In October 1911, two men led adventure teams on a quest to be the first people recorded in history to ever reach the South Pole. These two expedition leaders were Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen’s team won the race by 34 days and all the members safely returned home. Scott’s team not only lost the race, but all 5 members lost their lives on the trip home.

What was the difference? Well, both leaders were similar in age, had comparable experience, and faced the same round trip challenge of 1,400 unforgiving miles. Both faced the same environment in the same year with the same goal.

The difference, Collins shared with us, was their behavior. Amundsen’s success was marked by, in Collins words, “a triad of core behaviors: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia.”

Collins then shared the illustration of the “twenty mile march.” Amundsen’s team marched 20 miles, regardless of the conditions. Scott’s team, on the other hand, took actions determined by the conditions. In bad conditions, they didn’t travel as far. If conditions were good, they traveled as far as possible to try and make up for their bad days. Similar to the old tale of the tortoise and the hare – slow and steady did indeed win the race.

Collins concluded that most businesses follow Scott’s team’s model; “strike while the iron’s hot,” “leverage your opportunities,” “capture the moment,” etc. The “twenty mile march,” however, goes against such mantras.

The “twenty mile march” is all about keeping pace, having discipline, and maintaining self-control in an out of control world.

My struggle

My college lifestyle, up until my senior year, has reflected Scott’s team’s philosophy. At the beginning of each year, I was quick to jump at every opportunity that came my way. Be an R.C.? Of course. Run slides for Vespers? You betcha! Direct Student Outreach? Certainly. Work 2 student jobs?  Naturally. All while averaging 18 credits a semester and maintaining a GPA that would make my parents proud.

A week into the semester, and I’d be entirely worn out. While I thought I was capitalizing on the “college experience,” I was actually missing out. I’d watch in envy as other students played Frisbee on Scott field. I’d look bitterly at friends “catching up over coffee” in Jos, while I ordered a latte with an extra-shot to push me through the all-nighter I’d just pulled.

Although each of the opportunities I took were valuable experiences, the combination of all of them, all at once, was too much. I remember explaining it to a friend like I constantly felt like I was doggy paddling, trying to keep my head above water, but never able to catch up and never in control.

This year, although I feel I’m just as productive as previous years, I don’t struggle with feeling worn-thin.

Independent writer and speaker, creator of 43 Folders, and productivity guru Merlin Mann provides a helpful illustration (which he credits to Joel Spolsky) for evaluating how you use your time and attention. He says your time and attention are the most valuable resource you have and they are finite. However, the demands people make for your time and attention can also be infinite. Instead of trying to figure out better ways to stretch you time (e.g. multitasking), you should evaluate how you are using it.

The illustration he uses goes like this: your available time and effort is like a box. Every task you add to that box is like a little block. No matter how you arrange those blocks, only so many can fit inside the box. He refers to the available space in the box as “opportunity costs,” so every time you put a block in the box – that means a different block can’t go in the box.

In other words, every time you say “yes” to an opportunity, you are simultaneously saying “no” to all other opportunities that could also have filled your time.

My strategy

Thinking about my time in this way has allowed me to have a more proactive approach to managing the action in my life. It has been difficult to learn to tell people “no,” but its also been so restorative to feel more fully present to the tasks to which I have said “yes.”

My strategy consists of 3 systems – a goal list for the year, a weekly planner, and a daily to do list. This might sound too high-strung, but in practice it has allowed me to have a more easy-going lifestyle. Because I am in control of my schedule, I am able to create times for play and regeneration.

A yearly goal list: I have begun a habit of making goals on each of my Birthdays, so this year, I wrote 22 goals I hope to have accomplished before my 22nd birthday ranging from “learn to make Zucchini bread” to facing a certain fear. When writing goals, I have found it is best to be specific and direct my efforts toward a quantifiable thing. Also, I always try and keep the goals positive, like “drink a minimum of 2 glasses of water a day” instead of “drink less coffee.”

A weekly planner: I have been an agenda person ever since it was required in grade-school and you had to take it home for your parents to sign off on your assignments. It is helpful for me to get things off my brain by writing them down. I literally feel stress leaving my body as I write a task in my agenda. By including everything in your planner – not just due dates and meetings, but also T.V. shows you plan to watch or time you’ll spend exercising – you begin to see when your week is getting too full. You will also be able to see how your time is being spent toward or against your yearly goals.

A daily to-do list: Reminding myself each day what tasks need to be accomplished helps me stay on track and motivated throughout the day. Especially when working on several different projects, to-do lists help me manage my time between each task as well as taking time to relax or enjoy nature. Breaking up large projects into manageable daily tasks is necessary for me to not get overwhelmed and stay motivated on big undertakings. Creating to-do lists also allows me to spend more time actually working, instead of constantly stressing about how I’m ever going to get everything done.

Developing these habits has required discipline – and I still struggle with the temptation to “speed ahead” on my 20-mile march. But in time, I hope this system becomes a habit that helps me reach my goals.



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